Homicides steady as rest of crime drops Robbery and theft are down

killings on pace to exceed 300

July 28, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

While crime is dropping in Baltimore for the third straight year, bolstering the confidence of city police and their effort to make the city safer, the number of homicides continues at a steady pace.

Fewer people are getting robbed, fewer cars are being stolen and fewer thefts are being reported. But the city is on target for more than 300 killings for the ninth straight year, bucking a trend in which homicides have plummeted in other urban areas across the nation.

Police say the crack cocaine epidemic that struck in the mid-1980s arrived late in Baltimore, and its lingering effects are being felt among tens of thousands of addicts and the young men who shoot one another for the right to sell the drugs.

"It might be true crime is down, but people don't feel comfortable," said city Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch, who represents the city's west side, from Edmondson Village to Park Heights. "Statistics say one thing. How people feel is another."

During the first six months of this year, police said yesterday, overall crime dropped 8.9 percent -- including a 12.5 percent decrease in violent crime and a 7.9 percent decrease in property crime -- when compared with the first six months of last year.

Police point out that crime has dropped nearly every year since Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier took over the Police Department in February 1994. In 1995, the city reported 94,837 crimes to the FBI. That number dropped to 77,598 last year, an 18 percent drop.

"It keeps getting harder and harder to go lower and lower," Frazier said yesterday. "I think we are really beginning to see the impact of hard-working police officers and good neighborhood associations."

Homicides are a persistent problem, however. Last year, the numbers dropped significantly for the first time in a decade, when 310 people were killed, down from 331 in 1996. As of yesterday morning, 179 people had been killed, six more than at the same time last year.

"With all the good efforts we are putting in that have had a positive effect, homicide is one area that we've had a hard time with," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, who heads the Criminal Investigation Bureau.

Police said they are continuing the homicide suppression squad, a group of 60 tactical officers who blanket high-crime neighborhoods each night.

The effort started three months ago when the city's number of killings was 29 more than at the same time last year.

While Baltimore's slaying numbers dropped about 6 percent from 1996 to 1997, other cities had much more dramatic reductions: Atlanta went from 196 to 150, a 23 percent drop, and Washington, 397 to 300, down 24 percent.

The cities in which slayings rose include Richmond, where the number went from 112 to 139, and Indianapolis, from 132 to 146.

But it is New York that continues to show the most dramatic drop -- more than 70 percent since 2,245 people were slain in 1993. That number dropped to 767 last year and the city continues to see a decrease this year. For Baltimore to have a similar rate per 100,000 people, slayings would have to drop to less than 70.

Frazier noted that crack cocaine hit Baltimore later than in other cities.

"If we're three or four years behind that curve, it's going to take that much longer to work its way through," the commissioner said. "As much as things have improved, we're still at the tail end of that cycle."

Frazier also noted the availability of guns and a high mortality rate for people hit by gunfire. A Fire Department study conducted last year showed that 16.7 percent of shooting victims died last year, well above a national big-city average of 11 percent.

The high number of slayings has given ammunition to Frazier's critics, who have complained for years about the commissioner's reluctance to implement so-called zero-tolerance policing -- in which all infractions of the law are vigorously addressed -- widely credited with causing a sharp drop in crime in New York.

Instead, Frazier has targeted gun violence while making drug possession arrests a low priority. Two years ago, he set up a squad of officers to investigate nonfatal shootings with the same zeal as homicides.

Now, he said, arrests are made in 55 percent of the cases, up from 19 percent in 1996.

New cooperation between city police and state correctional officers also is helping, officials say. For the first time, the identities of suspects booked at the Central Booking and Intake Center are being double-checked through a computerized database of 1.3 million fingerprints while the person is in custody.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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